Dancers Do-Si-Do at U. of Texas Club

As the clock strikes 6 p.m. and students rush past the door, the Backstreet Boys' "As Long as You Love Me" blares from inside the room. A dozen dancers, visibly anxious, clasp their partners' hands and take off in different directions.

Two evenings a week, the Longhorn Country Dance Club meets at the University of Texas at Austin campus to practice the fine art of polka, the Colombian folk dance cumbia, the minuet and five other "country" dances. Tonight, it's the Texas two-step and West Coast swing.

For many in the class -- student, faculty and staff alike -- this is their first time on a dance floor.

'All Levels Here'

"We have all levels here," says Vinh Pham, a tall, energetic graduate student who created the club last spring with his fiancee. "There are a lot of beginners, but intermediate and expert dancers as well."

Pham, a professional dancer, was a member of Texas Ballroom, another campus dance organization, before he decided to pursue country specifically.

"I just really enjoy the social aspect of dance, and I felt like I was somehow missing it there," he says, shaking his jet-black hair with a hand. "But here, everyone knows everyone and we make quick friends because we're such a small, tight group."

Steve Friesen, a classics professor at the university, is here with his wife, Janice. "This is my first class and honestly, I'm not really sure what the heck I'm doing," he admits, straightening his shoulders and trying hard to appear relaxed.

But his eyes, darting from corner to corner in search of Janice, give him away. "I figured a country dance class is part of my becoming a Texan," says Friesen, a California native.

Lesson in Being Texan

If the class is a lesson in being Texan, it's not immediately clear from the Converse sneakers or the Aerosmith and Switchfoot concert tees the dancers are wearing.

At the front of the room, Jansport backpacks and purses of all colors are haphazardly strewn across the blue-gray risers, the occasional hi-topped sneaker cozying up beside them.

The class is divided into men and women, who line up on either side of the enormous room, their reflections clearly visible in the shiny hardwood floor. The guys move with clunky footwork toward the center of the room, taking their detailed instructions from Pham, who is standing before them, clapping his hands together sharply with each beat.

"Side, together, side, back, side, together, side, forward …" his voice echoes throughout the room.

Over on the left, the women are being coached by Jennifer Strunk, president of the club. "Come on girls, let's do it again," she says, smiling and focusing on Janice's uncertain footsteps.

One More Time

"Can we do it just one more time?" Janice asks her instructor, hands behind her back like a little girl.

"Of course," Strunk replies patiently, as she assumes the first position of their two-step.

Minutes later, the dancers are partnered and move counterclockwise in a large circle. Twirling, Patrick Thomas and his girlfriend, Micaela Casas, move together, as if they've been doing this forever.

"This is my first semester here," Thomas says, his face gleaming with sweat. "That makes this my third or fourth class, but I just want to dance well and … impressively," he says, motioning toward Micaela, one of the club's officers, with his hand. She smiles.

"OK, everyone together now, one, two, three, four …" Pham says, starting up Eric Clapton's "Layla" from his black laptop.

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